Our military must do more to end sexual abuse in armed forces
When I deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom as a company commander, I had to follow orders to travel in a buddy pair which applied to all service members on our base camp.Even as a captain, I was not allowed to go anywhere without another service member by my side.This order overseas during a time of war was not to deter enemy attacks. Unfortunately, it was intended to protect us — both males and females — from sexual assault because of increased occurrences on our base.Those who have worn our nation’s uniform know the importance of a battle buddy system. Though it was used on my deployment to deter sexual assault, its ability to have a positive impact ranges from helping young recruits make better decisions to keeping a teammate awake on watch.The blanket order given to us in 2004 had an important message: Rank and location will not protect you from sexual assault. Over a decade later, as a U.S. senator, I often look back on that time as a vivid reminder of the need to address this continuing issue.Sexual assault can impact anyone. It is a problem throughout our society from college campuses to our military — all of which we must work to end.However, the military is unique and, rightfully, it often gets a spotlight for its struggle to correct this problem. While there are certainly proactive steps any institution can take, a drill instructor, for example, cannot single-handedly eliminate the deeply rooted societal ills that perpetuate this problem.There is more that the military can and should do to protect service members, prosecute offenders and change the culture. They must stop this trauma from happening in the first place.Since taking office, I have met with young service members to discuss their experiences. The message I hear is all too often similar: Victims have a fear of retaliation and of negatively impacting their whole unit by coming forward.This is unacceptable to me. Those who report sexual assault should not fear coming forward, and those who retaliate against individuals reporting incidents should be punished to the full extent of the law.I have been working with Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill to address this issue through this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which is now law. We authored legislation together that makes retaliation its own unique offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.By making retaliation a new offense under the military’s legal system, our measure included in the bill will offer a clear deterrent to anyone thinking of retaliating against a service member.As we continue to see the problem of sexual assault plague institutions around the country, it is my hope that the military will continue to take concrete steps to improve and become a leading example for how to effectively curb this problem.I recently read an article about how three soldiers from Fort Drum with the 10th Mountain Division stepped in and saved a young woman at a bar from being sexually assaulted. They said that upon witnessing what appeared to be a female being drugged, their sexual harassment/assault response and prevention training just kicked in.Not only should the military strive to protect its members as they did here, but it should also seek to equip its members to help prevent sexual assault wherever it occurs.Sexual assault will continue to plague our military and our nation until we come together and take concrete steps forward to address this horrific issue and change the culture.I hope my legislation will serve as one of those steps, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues toward an end to this problem.